We’re just about halfway through April now. As you may be aware, the month of April is often a very stressful time for many autistic people, due to the fact that April is “Autism Month.” This stress of course comes somewhat from the fact that we tend not to like all kinds of attention forced on us, but more so from the fact that have chosen to take April’s brand as “Autism Awareness Month” and turn it into “Autism “Bewareness” month, relating a narrative of fear and negativity in regards to autism. (I’m actually having a particularly tough April for this and many other reasons, which is why I haven’t been writing as much this month.) Just before April, I wrote a piece about how we should be moving more towards autism acceptance and positivism by going #RedInstead. I’d like to expand on this idea of Autism Acceptance here as it relates to “awareness.”
Contrary to what people speculated in the various comment sections of the places my post was shared, I am not against autism awareness, nor do I believe that this is a zero-sum game where it’s the acceptance campaign and nothing else. No, what I am against is the “bewareness” that often gets passed around as awareness during the month of April about how this scary being called “Autism” steals children, or tears apart marriages, or is a global health crisis, or whatever else nonsense gets passed around. I am against this awareness, as honestly ignorance is tenfold better than this. However, I do believe that good, well-informed autism awareness is a key and crucial starting point towards building autism understanding, and ultimately, autism acceptance. However, it is just that. A starting point, not an end goal. As such, my second complaint about these “awareness” campaigns is their focus is entirely on awareness and nothing else. Perhaps I can explain with this simple graphic I just drew up:
Here, I have listed three aspects of autism advocacy: awareness, understanding, and acceptance. Each of these build off of each other, but they grow in ultimate importance as they approach the top. Let’s define all of these terms:
Awareness literally means, “knowledge of perception of a fact.” Therefore, “autism awareness” could be translated as simply “knowing autism exists.” Perhaps you might include a very basic level of accurate understanding of what autism is with regards to awareness, but exactly how much constitutes “awareness” is a rather fuzzy line. This is, of course, the important first step towards acceptance, but it is just the most basic first step. Too many people focus too much on awareness. As I have stressed before, awareness is not enough. Nearly everybody is aware of autism, as I doubt you’ll find a person who has never heard of something called “autism” even if they don’t truly know what it is. Therefore, we need to move beyond awareness further up the pyramid.
Having an accurate understanding of what autism is is the next important step. Where awareness ends and true understanding begins is also a fuzzy line, but good appropriate understanding of autism goes beyond simple “awareness.” Having a true understanding of what autism actually is, and is not, can be gained by speaking to or reading the writings of #ActuallyAutistic people, as we know best what autism means. Autism understanding is necessary before moving to the top of the pyramid with:
Autism acceptance is where I’d like to see us, generally as a society and a species, get to. Autism acceptance means accepting and including autistic people as full, equal, complete, and as worthy of rights as any other people. It means dropping the fear rhetoric, the stereotypes, and the hysteria. It means allowing autistic people to be different without assuming that different means less. It means understanding that autism is not inherently a negative characteristic, but rather just a different neurology. You can see more of what I think about autism acceptance here.
Reaching acceptance is significantly more challenging than awareness or even understanding. People can become “aware” of something simply by hearing of it. Anyone open to listening and learning can gain a very good understanding of autism via good educational materials and interactions with autistics. However, awareness requires a change of attitude and heart. This is the most difficult of these three to pull off for specifically this reason. However, the good news is that the future looks bright for acceptance. More and more people are embracing autism acceptance campaigns, like Walk in Red or Light it up Gold, every year, even outside of Neurodiversity circles. The lack of autism acceptance in our culture may also simply be generational. With more and more school districts adopting integrated Special Education programs, today’s children are more and more growing up around autistic people, with autistic people as their classroom peers and their friends. Hopefully, this kind of early exposure will help to break down barriers and promote future autism acceptance. Either way any of this works out, I am very proud of my Autistic community for working hard to move beyond autism awareness.
I’ve been overall very low on spoons these past couple of weeks, and today is no different. Right now I’m too tired, my body is too restless, and my mind is too scrambled to write much more. However, I’m glad I could get these thoughts down in this quick post, and I encourage you to look beyond simple autism awareness. and move towards broader autism acceptance.
Hopefully, more is to come soon.